Asian American chosen to navigate missile destroyer

By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Lt. J.G. Han Sol Yi is the Navigation Officer aboard the Norfolk-based guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67). (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Growing up, 25-year-old Navy Lt.j.g. Han Sol Yi never imagined he would be the navigator of a destroyer, let alone the U.S. Navy Guided-missile destroyer USS Cole, one of the world’s most advanced warships.

The Cole, based out of Norfolk, Va., has a place in history. On Oct. 12, 2000, al-Qaeda operatives attacked the Cole in a suicide bombing mission while it was anchored for refueling in Aden, Yemen. The attack ripped a 40-by-60-foot hole in the port side of the ship, near the crew’s dining and mess facility. Seventeen sailors lost their lives and another 37 sailors were injured during the attack.

Yi understood the significance of the ship.

“I feel very lucky that I get to serve on such a historic ship,” Yi said. “It’s put on a pedestal. A lot of eyes are on us and I can say I feel very proud to be a part of history.”

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The Cole was named in honor of Marine Sergeant Darrell S. Cole, a machine-gunner killed in action during World War II. The ship is impressive. It is nearly 500 feet long, 66 feet wide, and weighs more than 8,000 tons. Yi will be taking the behemoth of a ship on a tour to the Mediterranean area next month.

The journey to becoming a navigator on the Cole has been a long one.

Yi graduated from Curtis Sr. High School in University Place, Wash., where he participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. There, he met friends who wanted to serve in the military, something Yi didn’t think that hard about at the time. But the gears started turning in his brain and he decided to look into it.

It was the perfect opportunity to provide for his family, he said. His parents had come to the United States from South Korea to find opportunity.

“When they first came to the States, they had nothing,” Yi said. “My dad was a fisherman, making money that way. Just the fact that I could join such an elite group and get paid a certain amount of money to provide for the family was the main interest for me.”

Still, his parents were skeptical of his decision to join the Navy at first.

“At the very beginning, they didn’t even approve of me going into the military. It’s dangerous, we’re involved in world conflicts,” Yi said.

Fast forward. He graduated with a four-year degree from the University of Washington with the help of an ROTC scholarship and he then joined the Navy. It wasn’t long until he was commissioned to go on his first tour, which involved serving in the Persian Gulf on a destroyer, keeping water lanes open, performing anti-piracy ops, and making the U.S. military presence known.
It was certainly a different life than the one he led in Seattle.

“It was different,” Yi said. “Starting with the weather. You know, Seattle has nice crisp air, but when I got there, it was really hot. Desert heat. I wasn’t used to that weather. I wasn’t used to the culture of living on the ship. Heck, I didn’t even know what a ship looked like at first, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

But he got used to it, and he marveled at the direction his life took.

“I was driving a ship 15 miles from Iran, patrolling. It was just crazy. My life completely changed after I graduated, it was something I wasn’t even expecting,” Yi said.

After wrapping up his tour in the Persian Gulf, Yi asked his captain for a recommendation to become a navigator. When his captain asked him why, he said it was “the essence of what we did.” His captain agreed and gave him a recommendation. Yi went to a one-month school to get a crash course in navigation and took more tests than ever.

“There is a test every other day, and I’m like, ‘Oh great, this sucks,’” he said, laughing. “I actually did alright. I was kind of surprised.”

Yi made it through school and became a navigator. And now, after seeing their son succeed, his parents couldn’t be anymore excited. They even had an article published in Korean newspapers, both in Washington state and Virginia.

“Now, they’re crazy about it. They always say they’re proud of me, they’re always telling their family and friends,” Yi said.

With the money he’s been able to make, Yi bought his parents a home in Norfolk, Va. His dad is no longer a fisherman and his parents have found success in running a jewelry store for several years. In a sense, Yi’s parents are living the life they had imagined when they set off from South Korea so many years ago.

“I don’t know a lot of 25-year-olds buying homes. I’m pretty much living the American Dream,” Yi said.
Yi is passionate about where he works and he doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon.

“Right now, I’m leaning toward staying in [the Navy]. I didn’t go through all that school and get here for nothing, you know. I want to try and get as far as I can in the military, whether that’s my four-year obligation or the full 20 years and retire.

He did say that he plans to go back to school to get a master’s degree, possibly at the University of Washington. His ultimate goal is to become captain of his own ship.

“Hopefully if things work out right, I play my cards right, I can make it there some day,” he said. (end)

Navy Communications Specialist Justin Yarborough contributed to this report.

Zachariah Bryan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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